Public History of the Holocaust: Historical Research in the Digital Age

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2013, Vol. 37, No. 1

I was fortunate to be able to attend the international conference on the Public History of the Holocaust: Historical Research in the Digital Age, which was held at the Jewish Museum in Berlin on July 9, 2013.

The purpose of this conference was to provide a platform to discuss the challenges and opportunities for researching the Holocaust that are offered by increased access to source material and innovative techniques for analyzing it. Since digital resources for studying the Holocaust are important both for historians and for members of the general public, this conference focused on the “democratization” of Holocaust research from various perspectives: those of historians and academics, cultural heritage institutions of various types, funding agencies, and government organizations.

This discussion took place in the context of increased awareness of (and financial support for) national and international digital resources that encourage cooperation among researchers and institutions as well as provide opportunities for outreach to the general public. Accordingly, this conference was sponsored by the German Ministry of Education and Research and co-organized by three projects in Germany and Europe that focus on research infrastructures for the humanities: the Digital Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities (DARIAH),See the German iteration here the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI), and TextGrid: Virtual Research Environment for the Humanities.

The German Federal Minister for Education and Research, Johanna Wanka, and the Director-General of DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission, Robert-Jan Smits, opened the conference by pointing to the field of Holocaust research as one in which there is urgent need for infrastructures that support access to accurate materials for members of the general public and that encourage cooperation among archives and cultural heritage institutions. The generation of first-hand eyewitnesses is aging rapidly and their experiences could be lost forever if not somehow preserved, and new generations of scholars and students face large quantities of online material that is often divorced from the context necessary for interpretation.

The next speaker, Georgi Verbeeck from the University of Leuven, discussed the history of the study of the Holocaust and its meaning for contemporary society, particularly since the Holocaust is one of the most widely-studied events of the twentieth century. Over the last seven decades, changes in how the Holocaust is perceived demonstrates how public memory is shaped by its time, and how new approaches to education and outreach are vital in connecting with new generations. In particular, he emphasized the importance of adding individual experiences to the overarching “grand narrative” of the Holocaust in order to create new ways of engaging with this history. As he pointed out, the rise of Holocaust deniers misusing internet search engines, and the internet in general, to spread their own propaganda is one example of the dangers of the digital age that must be combated by making accurate and valuable information more accessible.

Following this discussion, there were presentations by representatives from institutions who have made their collections accessible for Holocaust research in a variety of ways: Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, and the German Federal Archives. These institutions all work with researchers and members of the general public but they have very different histories and objectives, which are reflected in their approaches to outreach and the resources they are making available online.

Although all of these presentations were fascinating, one that particularly stood out for me was from the Director of the International Tracing Service (ITS), Rebecca Boehling, who discussed the background and changing goals of her organization. The ITS began in response to the need for an administrative body to deal with identifying and repatriating refugees and displaced persons after the Second World War. For much of its history, it primarily dealt with individuals trying to locate or discover more information about family members. As such, it functioned independently and, although it was located in Germany and was funded by (West) German government funds, it was under international control and was therefore not subject to German laws concerning data privacy and personal information. Because these laws are deliberately very strict in response to the abuse of personal data under the Nazi regime, the center’s ability to provide information to family members tracing relatives would have been affected if it had been required to follow them. In 2007, the ITS began its ongoing transition from a tracing center, one that was closed to most historians, to a research center that actively encourages use of its collection of circa 30 million documents. Part of this process involves developing a better indexing and cataloging system, since the archives are organized principally by name and lack systematic subject or thematic cataloging. These documents include detailed narratives written by refugees applying for assistance from the Red Cross that describe their wartime experiences, which is a rich and unexplored source of exactly those types of first-hand personal narratives that were discussed earlier.

The closing session of the conference featured a lively panel discussion on issues surrounding the practice of history in a digital environment. Topics included the transformative power of technology in producing digital methods that speed up searching through large collections but potentially lose sight of source context, hate speech legislation and methods for countering the spread of Holocaust denial, and the social impact of encouraging collaboration between historians and amateur researchers.

The venue is also well worth a visit if you are ever in Berlin. The Jewish Museum was perfect for a discussion about the opportunities and challenges of combining traditional methods and new techniques because it is itself a mixture of old and new. It is famous for its architecture—the newer extension to the museum, which was designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind, is a unique zigzag form in which there are very few 90-degree angles. The combination of the stately Baroque building and the sleek metallic form arcing alongside it is quite effective in making this museum stand out even in the wide-ranging architectural styles on view in Berlin.

Below is the main visitor’s entrance to the Jewish Museum, as seen from the street entrance on Lindenstraße.

Main visitor’s entrance to the Jewish Museum

Next is an aerial view of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The center building with the enclosed roof is connected to the zigzag-shaped extension building by an underground walkway.

aerial view of the Jewish Museum in Berlin

Here is a view of the conference space, located in the enclosed space surrounded by the central building. The combination of traditional and modern features on display makes this space very arresting. We were fortunate enough to have beautiful weather that day, so we could take full advantage of the space and the garden behind it.

view of the conference space

Both in the physical space and in the subject matter, this conference was a complex and rewarding experience. The topic of public history and the Holocaust is of course far too large to be covered comprehensively in a one-day conference, but this was a good introduction to current issues in Holocaust studies as well as broader questions connected to the development of new technology for historical research.

Kathleen M. Smith
State and University Library, Göttingen, Germany